The Bears-Baltimore Ravens game was something a bit more than an extra preseason game. It was a test kitchen of sorts, with the Bears and Ravens not exactly laboratory animals, but not exactly just playing another preseason game, either.
The reason was the debut of the “helmet-hitting rule,” a local ordinance enacted this offseason that imposes a 15-yard penalty on a player lowering his head to initiate a hit. Two Ravens were flagged for violations, and another Raven and a Bear were hit with unnecessary-roughness infractions. No offensive players were tagged, but casual conversations with individuals in and around the game suggest that those calls will come, if only in response to complaints from defensive players about unequal enforcement.
(Of course, there’s somehow a quirky irony in premiering a measure pegged as a step toward player safety, and doing it in an extra preseason game, in a sport where the notions of “extra preseason game” and “safety” seem a touch oxymoronic. But that’s for another discussion.)
For a league grappling largely unsuccessfully with anthem policies and catch rules, the rollout of the helmet rule was anything but a success. Game analysts were confused, and players on at least one NFL team expressed confusion directly after meetings with officials to have the rule explained.
It in fact has little chance of achieving a significant uptick in “safety.” And it has all the potential of altering the outcomes of games as much or more than any other statute on the NFL books, for reasons ranging from the imposition of the penalty at the time, to possible fines or suspensions upon further review.
“The rule is so simply written but it expands so far, depending on how it’s applied,” said former NFL referee Terry McAulay, now a rules analyst for NBC and offering that commentary during Thursday’s game.
The problems are simple and obvious.
The first is enforcement. Officials, like players, are human. Even the ones watching on replay screens in New York. Replays of instances in Thursday’s game raised as many questions as they answered as to what was or wasn’t a clear violation.
The second is that the “fault” in an illegal hit is not entirely within the control of the tackler/blocker/runner/receiver. A move in the last split-second before impact and a ballcarrier moves into, not away from, an otherwise properly-aimed helmet from an incoming player. Neither player intended for the hit to be improper, but it will be, sometime.
The third lies in the simple numbers. As appalling as some catch/no-catch situations and rulings have been, the situations occur only a handful of times during a game.
But in Thursday’s game, the two teams ran a total of 139 plays. Even on plays without tackles, such as touchdowns or players going out of bounds, the potential exists for upwards of 6-8 hits per play, whether blocks or whatever, or ballcarriers running into more than one per play.
Doing the loose math, the result could be as many as 1,000 instances of actionable contact per game, not 2-3 with a catch rule.
Best guess is that more than two infractions will be called in more than a game or two this season. For loose illustrative purposes, the Ravens were a relatively well-behaved team last season, with their 46.8 penalty yards per game ranking fourth-lowest in the NFL. The new rule cost them 30 last night that wouldn’t have been assessed previously. Which may have been in the back of the mind of Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, who lauded the rule as “great” back in May after it was enacted, but told reporters post-game last night, “I don’t know enough about the rule to understand it right now and comment on it.”
When one of the NFL’s longest-tenured and Super Bowl-winning coaches doesn’t know enough to understand a rule, best guess is that the problem is with the rule, not the coach.